D-cinema questions vex NAB

Microsoft deals greeted with derision

HOLLYWOOD — A worldwide broadcaster conclave might seem an unlikely place to assess digital cinema, but that’s just where many key companies and people in the nascent business gathered last week.

And to hear them talk at NAB’s Las Vegas convention, plenty is happening– it’s just hard to see.

“There’s a lot going on, just nothing that’s public,” said a hardware exec. “Everyone’s maneuvering and trying to position themselves.”

Blame the quiet on the temporary stilling of marketing by companies waiting for a studio-backed consortium to plow through equipment testing, and standard-setting bodies to agree on what quality level is “good enough.”

Several big announcements rolled out around NAB, including Microsoft’s deal with Landmark Theaters to put digital projectors in more than 50 theaters, with material encoded in the latest Windows Media Player. It expands Microsoft’s move last fall to project indie pics such as Artisan docu “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” on 10 screens.

But the computer giant’s d-cinema deals were greeted with derision. The publicity may be good, insiders said, but Windows Media 9 Series was designed to make a small amount of image information look good on a very small screen, not a huge image on a very big screen. It’s the wrong tool for the job.

And several questioned Microsoft’s long-term d-cinema commitment. A quick publicity score may sell more server software, but the technology needs revamping to project more than pre-show material on an arthouse screen.

Other announcements were greeted more warmly, such as Dalsa’s unveiling of a camera with more than 4,000 lines of horizontal resolution. Along with Thomson Grass Valley’s Viper camera, Dalsa’s prototype is another important, if still interim, step toward digitally capturing as much visual information as film.

“For the next 10 years, film will not disappear,” said Charles Swartz, whose Entertainment Technology Center is running projection testing for the studio-backed Digital Cinema Initiative.

Elsewhere, digital technologies that have transformed editing and film finishing continue to rocket ahead, with more powerful, inexpensive and flexible systems. And JVC and Texas Instruments now have projector technologies that are sharper than high-def video, and likely will be the minimum quality for projection.

But lots of work lies ahead.

One insider called the plodding efforts to devise worldwide d-cinema standards like “the U.N. Somebody needs to keep this thing together.”

Meanwhile, cinematographers continue to experiment, their feedback honing companies’ equipment. But the shooters still find plenty to fault, like with the inconsistent way different companies display a digital movie.

“This is not a minor issue,” said cinematographer David Leightner. “We know what to expect with 35mm (film). We don’t with digital. We need standards.”

David Stump, chairman of the American Society of Cinematography’s image-acquisition committee, was almost grumpy about the lengthy list of fixes needed, like better security and archivability.

“We need to remember that we have all these tools in our toolbox,” said Stump, “and if we throw away all the film cameras, we would lose so many of our tools.”

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